I first discovered the reality of symbols as “emotional shorthand” when I raised a Nazi flag over my family home in Hope in 1954. I was 9 years old and was leading American forces against Germany at the time.
Since I lived out in the country and had no companions to join me in the war, I was forced to fight on both sides of the battle. I dug a foxhole, but the Germans captured it and raised a crudely created Nazi flag over it — a flag that my one-man American forces had to capture.
We Americans were about to defeat the Third Reich when my father drove into our driveway and found the Nazi flag flapping in the wind on a pole high above the foxhole. For some reason unknown to me at the time, he was mortified, embarrassed and angered. He charged the German fortifications himself, without support from my army, tore down the flag and threw it in a trash can.
At that point, I became a prisoner of war and was confined to my bedroom — forced to endure a torturous interrogation over why I would raise a Nazi flag in our yard “for all the world to see.” He didn’t buy my defense that the Germans had raised the flag and I was one of the good guys who would have taken it down, had he gotten home a few minutes later.
“We have friends and neighbors who lost their fathers, sons and husbands fighting Nazi Germany,” I recall him saying. “Can you imagine how they would feel seeing that swastika on a flag in our yard?”
His anger and embarrassment made no sense to me at the time. Although the Second World War had only ended nine year earlier, the reality of that war was as remote in my mind as the American Revolution. I saw the war as dramatic, heroic history and a fun game. Dad saw it as painful, personal tragedy.
Why, I wonder, did he not get upset when I created a Confederate battle flag for my Union Army troops to capture — saving the nation from southern traitors and freeing the slaves? I could find no differences. I knew his own grandfather — my great grandfather — had fought for the Sixth Indiana Volunteer Regiment in that war. Dad’s own mother had told me about how her father was wounded and almost died fighting the Confederacy.
So, why was the Confederate battle flag OK, while the Nazi flag was an insult to all loyal Americans? Had I dared to ask that question in the midst of my father’s tirade, I am not sure how he would have answered it. I doubt he would have seen the connection. The heartaches and the pain of the Civil War were as ancient and emotionally remote to him as World War II was to me.
I sometimes think about this interchange between my father and me when I see the Confederate battle flag proudly displayed by teens — and even adults — on caps, front license plates and T-shirts. Often, the bearers of this symbol deny any racist motivations, and say the flag today is just a symbol of pride in southern or rural heritage. Yet, simultaneously, others use it openly to show pride in their bigotry, racism and support for white supremacy.
In truth, the battle flag now used by many as a symbol of southern and rural pride was never the official flag of the Confederacy. It was used in battle by some forces in the Army of Northern Virginia during the war, but came to prominence in the 20th century in support of segregation and opposition to civil rights for African-Americans. It was a Ku Klux Klan flag raised at cross burnings and lynchings.
So why do otherwise good and thoughtful people use tarnished — even evil — symbols they have accepted out of ignorance or insensitivity to express some alleged new meaning? Some symbols can never be scrubbed clean from their disgusting origins.
I am no longer 9 years old and plan to fly no more Nazi flags over my backyard — even though most of those who lived through the horrors of that war are no longer alive. I hope those who continue to try to sanitize and repurpose this Confederate battle flag will come to a similar decision.
To paraphrase my father: “We have friends and neighbors whose relatives were enslaved, tortured and killed under that flag — friends who were denied equal rights and opportunities for more than 100 years even after slavery was ended. Can you imagine how they would feel seeing that flag in our yard (or maybe on a bumper sticker)?”
Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.